Aaron Blair thinks that downtown is on the brink of being a big success. Unfortunately, it seems that Blair and I have a very, very different of success.
At last night’s State of the Downtown meeting, Aaron Blair pointed to several things that he interprets to mean that things are going well for downtown. To be sure, 2012 is bound to look good on paper, and that’s what Blair was reciting for the crowd. Unfortunately, there are some other key factors that paint a very different picture.
First, let’s look at some of the favorite places to dine downtown being gone. The Pizza Shop, Cafe 230, and Riverfront Barbeque are now fond memories downtown. “So what?” you might ask. “Isn’t there more to downtown than eating?” Well, not really. There are a couple of consignment type stores, a couple of places to eat, one restuarant that also sells fresh product (Our Daily Bread, for those interested), and not a whole lot else.
Downtown is drying up once again, and much of that is outside of Blair’s control. For example, he can’t make property owners lower rents. Instead, the city has a rental assistance program for downtown businesses. Unfortunately for downtown, that is a temporary program. Once the assistance ends, businesses shut down. [No, The Albany Journal did not make use of any such programs]
Blair points out significant investment in downtown over the last year, and that could be a promising sign. However, let’s look at that investment. The Nelson Tift building is one such location he cites. What is it? An event center. Much like the State Theater, it is rented out for events from time to time. What does this mean for downtown? For one, it means that the building is unlikely to bring any steady traffic downtown, and what traffic it does bring will be hyper local in nature. At best, dollars will be spent downtown rather than in another part of town. It’s unlikely to do much to bring in dollars from outside, especially since the building would be a poor choice for something like a concert, which is far more likely to draw people from outside the immediate area.
The Exchange Building is another area of heavy investment Blair mentioned. He also doesn’t mention that it is largely uninhabited. Investment is great, but a vacant building is still a vacant building, no matter how you slice it.
Blair and I do agree on one thing, and that is how downtown lacks an identity. The problem is, there are groups that are eager to give it that identity if folks would give them half a chance. The Downtown Arts Coalition and Makerspace Albany are both incredibly creative groups that could give Albany something that actually would draw non residents to downtown. Instead of trying to compete with Northwest Albany as a retail hub – a losing battle if the past years are any indication – why not shape downtown to be a creative hub instead?
As one of the largest cities in Georgia, the arts should be more significant. While the symphony and Theatre Albany are great, there should be more. Embrace the urban, leave the small town identity behind, and move downtown into the limelight as the artistic center of Southwest Georgia.
Then, to quote a movie, it becomes a case of “If you build it, they will come.” Folks come for the art, then hit a few shops and grab a bite to eat. Enough of them do that, and watch downtown explode…in a good way.